“Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It’s just not widely reported.”
Is there a more quotable film in the history of comedy? You might argue Anchorman, maybe Airplane!, but you’d be wrong. 30 years ago the creative quartet of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner redefined the rockumentary with This is Spinal Tap and earned themselves a lifetime stay in the comedy hall of fame.
Released in 1984 at the height of rock and roll excess, This is Spinal Tap tells the story of a fictional band touring the U.S.A. in search of fame and fortune. The likelihood of them finding it, however, is about as small as their Stonehenge set. As director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) reveals by crediting Spinal Tap as “one of England’s loudest bands” rather than one of their best, competence has no place in this film. The band are beautifully inept human beings, but they’re also brilliantly convincing rock and roll stars. So convincing in fact that director Rob Reiner was approached several times after the film’s release by people who said they loved the film but wished that he’d documented a more well-known band.
We begin onstage, with the band performing their hit ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’, dressed in the clothes that taste forgot. Leopard skin waistcoats, white silk pyjamas, and…well, basically bondage gear. Ridiculous they may be, these outfits were actually pretty tame for metal bands of the era. You could argue it’s easy to lampoon a target so ridiculous, but it’s not easy to do it this well.
Guest, McKean and Shearer may have been mocking the idiotic excess of the rock and roll lifestyle, but that didn’t mean they held back on the quality of the music. The songs are actually pretty good; the joke here lies in their lyrical content. Rock bands of the time made a trade out of crude sexual lyrics and Spinal Tap simply pushed this trend to its most ludicrous limit. A quick skim of their singles says it all: ‘Big Bottom’, ‘Swallow My Love’, ‘Bent for the Rent’, ‘Sex Farm’. One review quoted in the film says that the band are “treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry,” and is it any wonder with lines like: “My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo. I’d like to sink her with my pink torpedo”?
It sounds like these fictional lyrics are there purely for the purposes of a crude joke, but they are complemented perfectly by the band’s delusions of grandeur. As the creations of a group of sniggering teenagers these lyrics would be embarrassing, but as the proud work of deadly serious fortysomethings they’re downright hilarious. The band genuinely believe they’re pursuing some noble artistic dream in their music and there’s no finer example than Nigel Tufnel’s response to the previous brutal review. “Well it’s nit-picking isn’t it?” If you can convince yourself of that, you can convince yourself of anything.
As lead singer David St. Hubbins ponders at one point, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever,” and Spinal Tap straddle it with precision like the sex-obsessed rock and roll pretenders they are. Phrased a different way, you could say it takes a lot of brains to play characters this idiotic. As the oft-clashing lead guitarists, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean have a rare deadpan chemistry that feels like they’re in a relay race to be the stupidest person in the room. Meanwhile Harry Shearer quietly snatches moments of understated brilliance as bassist Derek Smalls, easily the most self-aware member of Spinal Tap. There’s an award to put on the mantelpiece.
Spinal Tap’s stage shows are full of legendary moments of visual comedy, from the 18-inch-high Stonehenge to the alien pods that fail to open, trapping Derek inside. These set-pieces have rightly gone down in history, but it’s the relationship between Nigel and David that has helped the film to become such a cult classic. Their constant po-faced bickering is hilarious, but even better is the genuine warmth between them. When Nigel storms off stage after one cock-up too many, David acts like it’s no big deal, but when they finally reunite it’s a surprisingly sweet moment. Beyond the blustering machismo and power struggles they’re just two great friends united by their love of ridiculous rock music.
Oh, and before I forget, there’s one more reason why This is Spinal Tap will be remembered as one of the greatest comedies of all time. You see, most films only go to ten, but this one… this one goes to eleven.